Landslips have affected the railway line at Dawlish and other locations around the South West.

Rocks, resources and railways: Geology in the South West

The railway line at Dawlish has reopened after two months out of service following severe weather in early 2014.

But its closure in the first place has raised questions about how we can better understand and prepare for incidents which have affected the rail network recently, including a number of landslips.

Dr Robin Shail, of the Camborne School of Mines (CSM), is involved in studying the region’s geology. His research covers a range of topics – including coastal land slipping.

He explained: “Coastal landslipping in Cornwall and Devon is often a legacy of the geological processes that operated in the region hundreds of millions of years ago. The faults and other fractures that formed then, now act as weak surfaces along which cliffs fall apart.”

“The last couple of winters have demonstrated the role of the two main external influences on coastal cliff stability. In winter 2012-13, cliff failures were primarily influenced by high groundwater levels following persistent rainfall. In contrast, during winter 2013-14, the exceptional succession of storms has generated widespread cliff failure through wave impacts. Climate change predictions imply increasing future incidence of both high winter rainfall and storminess."

 Understanding cliff failures is only a small part of Dr Shail’s research. He works closely with CSM colleagues and others investigating other aspects of Cornwall’s complex geology.

Dr Shail said: “Our regional geology literally underpins almost everything we take for granted, from landscape to collapsing cliffs to resources and soil chemistry – and ultimately much of it relates to plate tectonic processes hundreds of millions of years ago.

“It’s a fascinating tale with every day real world implications.”

Most of Dr Shail’s work is about developing deeper understanding of the geological evolution of Cornwall and how this has influenced the nature and distribution of the county’s natural resources, be that metal-containing ores, industrial minerals or geothermal energy.

The £1.7million Tellus South West Geophysical Survey is an example of such collaborative work, in this case with the British Geological Survey. The project involved an aircraft low-flying over much of Cornwall and Devon, gathering high resolution data to further investigate the geology, natural resources and the environmental character of the region.

Dr Shail is also working with business in the region. He is helping mineral-based industry solutions company Imerys investigate the potential for the recovery of other valuable minerals during the china clay extraction process. The work is being done through a Knowledge Transfer Partnership – a government-backed type of project allowing businesses to access the University’s expertise.